The blog of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

A discussion on the ethics of neuroscience

In the ethics surrounding neuroscience, an initial question considered by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues today was the definition of the words “self” and “person.”

The subject of neuroscience is one of three that the Commission is taking up this year. The other two are whole genome sequencing and effective countermeasures to protect children.

The discussion also delved into developments in neuroscience; the use of those tools; the rights of a person; and what happens in situations such as when a person suffers a brain injury or descends into dementia.

“We know when someone suffers a brain injury, or has Alzheimer’s Disease, we’re quick to say they have become a different person,” said James Wagner, the Commission Vice-Chair and the President of Emory University. “It may not be clear what we mean by that, or what we know about that, so in light of that we want to understand words like person and self.”

John Perry, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Stanford, and co-host of “Philosophy Talk,” a radio program that “questions everything… except your intelligence,” said it was important to demystify the definition of self.

“It’s a fairly straightforward concept,” he said. “Self is just a way of talking about ourselves.”

He continued: “What we know about ourselves, or think about ourselves isn’t just limited to the special ways people have to know about themselves. For example, this morning, trying to figure out where I should come to the meeting, I looked at the Commission Website and … part of that was seeing my name. ‘Ah this is where I should be.’ You have a John Perry concept., and I have a John Perry concept that is different than from my self concept.”

Marya Schechtman, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and author of The Constitution of Selves, talked about the identity of a person revolving around their narrative.

A narrative, she said, is a story of how people view themselves. “Lives are full of happenstance and trivia as well as important events, and they are part of our narrative as well,” she said.

Dr. Bernard Lo, Professor of Medicine and Director of Program in Medical Ethics at University of California, San Francisco, turned the discussion toward “change in self” and what that meant in real-life situations faced by patients, families and doctors.

He told the story of his favorite aunt who developed dementia in old age. She had told him years earlier that if she faltered badly in her later years she did not want to be kept alive. He said when he visited her during her period of dementia, she remembered him and his son and “was smiling.” Then she contracted pneumonia. The question, he said, was whether her contentment should override her earlier conviction not to prolong her life if any complications developed.

“To put this in ethical terms, what do you do when priority directions contradict current best interests?” Lo said.

Anthony Wagner, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Stanford University, described new advances in neuroscience. Some involved the use of functional MRI (fMRI). He said some initial conclusions from studies showed that fMRIs can detect whether someone is remembering an episode “with reasonable high accuracy.”
He also said that in some cases, fMRI tests in patients in “vegetative states” have shown detection of brain responses to questions.
Those developments, Commission members said, meant that it may be time to consider ethical questions around the use of neuroimaging before the technology progresses further.

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7 Comments to A discussion on the ethics of neuroscience

  1. February 3, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    Even if a person in a “vegetative state” shows brain waves on an fMRI scan, the person may not be able to live without being hooked up to machines. Simply because a person’s brain shows some kind of response, that does not mean that they are the same person mentally. I think that some things can be over analyzed. It is interesting that the brain can still show a response, but I don’t think that means the person must be kept alive at any cost.

  2. February 5, 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    So are we to assume then that the human has no spirit, no soul… only neurons and brain tissues? That would be a very sad thing indeed… the experience of a human being gone when he suffers from Alzheimers, forgetting sensations and feelings he once loved… I can’t even imagine why so much of our human experience is controlled by that gray matter called the brain…

  3. February 12, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    This is such a controversial issue that I doubt we’ll ever have a solution. Most people would never change their opinion on whether or not it’s ok to end a long term coma patients life.

  4. March 20, 2012 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    Just to expand upon the article in general…

    I don’t think that the idea of a soul can ever be scientifically proven or disproven. In my opinion, all of our thoughts, feelings, perceptions – every element contributing to what one would regard as the soul can only be attributed to the functioning of chemical and neurological interactions in the brain and nothing more.

  5. March 20, 2012 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know why people are so quick to say that the person suffering has become a different person. They are still the same person but soon with the research that is being put into developing cures for Alzheimers this will be an issue of the past.

  6. April 12, 2012 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Hi John,

    We are sometimes put into a dilemma in terms of a human life. We ask ourselves if it is okay to end a persons life because he is in a “vegetative state”? How far can the family go with the current financial status? Not with the economic crisis that we have now. Other question to ponder is what happened to Dr. Bernard Lo’s Aunt, does the patient willing to undergo another year or two under a comatose state?

    Caroline T. Middlebrook
    Plastic Surgeon in Dallas

  7. Horst Lehrheuer's Gravatar Horst Lehrheuer
    May 17, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Here are two, I think, very important issues that come to mind when I reflect on the important discussion about “ethics in neuroscience.”

    1) If one assumes, like I do, that communication is recursive, than the way we talk about the Self is recursive and our Reality, including our concept of Self, more and more or perhaps solely, is determined by the human community we are ‘part of’ and experience day to day. Simply speaking: Reality = Community.

    2) I, like Heinz von Foerster suggested years ago, would suggest to distinguish between ethics and morals (which we unfortunately and typically view as being synonymous). This makes working with the topic of ethics and morals much more pragmatic, i.e. applicable in our daily lives. Ethics viewed this way is then related to how I act and NOT how I want others to act. Therefore the application of Heinz von Foerster’s basic ethical principle is quite important: “I will always try to act so as to increase the number of choices.” Moral statements such as: “Thou shall not…” are very often not applied to oneself but are often acts that are requested of others. Morals viewed this way – i.e. us requesting others to behave in a certain way – becomes an act of moralizing, which we should avoid.

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